City building in China: From gangster haven to gateway

CHONGQING, China — Some 900 miles from Beijing, a mega-city is rising from the banks of the mud-brown Yangtze River. Long a grimy industrial center notorious for its criminal underworld, Chongqing is to become a glittering gateway to the country's interior.

It's a grand scheme carried out by a cash-rich authoritarian government.

Want a centerpiece for tourist brochures? A $230 million opera house was erected down by the river, a bauble among the skyscrapers. Is there a problem with criminal gangs and police corruption? Put the top judicial official on trial and, as happened last month, execute him.

Chongqing is a case study in urban development at the frenetic Chinese pace: Take a corner of the country that's little known to most outsiders, install an ambitious governor and throw in mind-boggling amounts of state cash.

"If you come back in half a month, you will not recognize the city," said Zhang Bo, who teaches economic law at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing.

While China's economic growth has been led for years by the manufacturing and export boom on its eastern coastline, Chongqing is a sign that Beijing is serious about developing inward and expanding the domestic economy.

The plan is to build a powerhouse of a city: a manufacturing base, transit point for goods and magnet for rural residents. If a large portion of the area's 32 million-plus residents are pulled into the urban center, it would be one of the most populated areas in the world.

The Chongqing government says that planned or current projects from state and private investment total as much as $149 billion. In the middle of the city, the clanging and banging of construction doesn't pause for the scorching noonday sun or humid evening air. The forest of high-rise buildings steadily grows thicker in all directions.

Sitting under an awning for a rest from the heat, Li Wanghua said he tried to keep up with the changing landscape during his work as a local "stick man," delivering packages tied to either end of a bamboo pole on his shoulders.

It's hard, though, to know what the city will do next, he said: "I can't tell; it changes every day."

A Chinese development official, Du Ying, said recently that some $2.95 trillion had been invested in fixed assets in China's western region since 2000, though it's not clear how that figure breaks down among central and local government and private-sector spending.

President Hu Jintao has urged that even more be done.

Chongqing and its surrounding districts were carved from Sichuan province in 1997, creating an area a little bigger than South Carolina with more than seven times the people, 32 million and counting.

To keep a hold on the reins, Beijing installed a rising political official, Bo Xilai, as the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing at the end of 2007. By 2009, Bo had launched a campaign against criminal gangs and corrupt government officials that led to thousands of arrests, including dozens of police officers and officials throughout the ranks.

The trials that followed etched a portrait of a city infested by gangsters and those on their payroll, with underground casinos and bordellos straight out of Al Capone's Chicago.

The biggest arrest was Wen Qiang, the director of Chongqing's judicial institutions and a former deputy police chief. His sister-in-law, Xie Caiping, nicknamed "the godmother of the Chongqing underworld," was included in the roundup.

After being found guilty of rape, protecting organized crime and taking bribes, Wen was sent to his death on July 7, reportedly by lethal injection. The "godmother" got 18 years.

Hauling in officials during criminal crackdowns is unusual in China. That so many were arrested in Chongqing, and put on relatively public trial, makes it clear that the central government won't let local problems hamper the city's national strategic importance, said Zhang, the professor.

"It shows the government's determination to match economic development with an improved social, political and cultural environment," he said.

With construction at a breakneck pace, there's a feeling of past, present and future being crunched together in Chongqing. Downtown, there's a monument to the 2,500 or more people who died from stampede or suffocation in an air raid shelter during a 1941 Japanese bombing raid. That marker of anguish now sits across the street from office buildings and a garish row of nightclubs with signs promising "TOP VIP." The People's Liberation Monument, meanwhile, has been adorned with Rolex clocks.

"It's unbelievable. You can see these magnificent buildings now ... and when I was little there were no high buildings in the city," said Xia Guilun, 55, who's lived in Chongqing since he was a child. Xia, a retired cook, began pointing at the high-rises around him and counting, "One, two, three, four, five," and it felt as if he could go on forever.

What about the area's history, and hardships during the rule of Mao? Xia would say only that his father died when he was young; "My mother said he died of exhaustion." He didn't want to discuss the details.

The family of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing, was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, his father tortured and his mother said to have been beaten to death. After Mao's death, Bo's father was named China's vice premier, a position he used to help shape the country's entry to Western capitalist markets while remaining politically conservative.

Despite his family's hardships at the whims of Mao, Bo is fond of quoting Mao publicly on issues ranging from the importance of raising children well to the need to carry out government orders. During a "Red Text" cell phone campaign last year, Bo's first message to more than 13 million users began: "There are several sentences of Mao Zedong that I love the most."

No one in Chongqing seems troubled by the irony.

There are still questions around the edges of the city's progress: How much debt has been taken on to pay for the growth? Does Bo have too much power? What if the rural-to-urban migration doesn't happen at the rate the government wants?

On a recent warm evening in Chongqing, Liao Mingsong said the important thing was that life was getting better. The 25-year-old assembly line worker at a motorcycle factory was sitting next to a pretty girl in a shopping district and watching people walk by.

During the past eight years, Liao's salary has more than tripled from 600 yuan a month (less than $100) to almost 2,000. He has ambitions of making much more.

Looking at the glittering lights of Chongqing, Liao smiled.

"I feel sort of connected to this city's life," he said. That, he explained, means big things are ahead.


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